The foreign ministers of Australia and India spoke by telephone on December 1, amid growing pressure from China on both countries. While the India-China military standoff persists in Ladakh — albeit at a simmer and not a boil, due to the literally freezing cold — Australia has found itself in China’s crosshairs as Canberra seeks to push back against Beijing across a range of issues, including interference in Australian domestic politics, China’s maritime territorial ambitions, as well as that country’s overt belligerence against Australia when it comes to trade.
After the call between the two, the Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar tweeted: “Just finished a conversation with Australian FM @MarisePayne. Reviewed regional and global developments and discussed our current concerns.” On her part, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne wrote on Twitter: “Australia & India’s Comprehensive Strategic Partnership has guided our close cooperation on regional challenges during COVID-19. My friend @DrSJaishankar & I had a very valuable discussion today following our meeting in [Japan] in October.”
On October 6, Tokyo had hosted the second edition of the Australia-India-Japan-United States Quad foreign ministers’ dialogue; on the sidelines of the Tokyo meeting, Jaishankar held bilateral discussions with the foreign ministers of the three other Quad countries, including with Payne.
While there is no denying that this has been a very good year for Australia-India relations – the capstone of which has been the Australian navy’s inclusion in the recently concluded India-Japan-United States Malabar exercises for the first time in 13 years – what will now shape the agenda, and provide sustained enthusiasm, for the relationship is how both countries can concretely help each other in their respective concerns when it comes to China.
For India, all said and done, the China challenge in the immediate future is continental, arising out of the 3,488-kilometer-long boundary dispute with Beijing. For Australia, on the other hand, the key task ahead remains either economically decoupling itself from China – which is sure to cause enormous short-term pain – or finding a way to push China back strategically while maintaining the commercial aspect of the relationship on an even keel, which is easier said than done.
What has been exceedingly interesting when it comes to the Ladakh standoff is how muted India’s partners have been when it comes to taking its side, and publicly speaking out about China’s territorial revisionism on land even when these countries continue to – rightly – call out Chinese revisionism in the Western Pacific. Other than (often unpleasantly loud) Trump administration statements about the Ladakh crisis, which included an odd mediation offer from Trump, many other close partners of India’s – including Australia – have been reticent to comment on it.
When asked about it ahead of the virtual summit between the Indian and Australian prime ministers in June, Australia High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell simply noted, “The issue is for China and India to resolve bilaterally. It is not an issue for Australia or any other country.” Payne’s remarks after the Galwan Valley clash mid-June were even more prosaic and guarded: “During a global pandemic, it is more important than ever that all countries minimize tensions and avoid confrontation in long-standing disputes.” While there are a variety of reasons why Australia and others may have been relatively silent about the Ladakh standoff (I explored four of them in these pages in September), the cumulative end effect threatens to detract from the otherwise upbeat statements and actions.
Similarly, consider Australia’s current predicament when it comes to China, and its imports to that country as Australia’s largest trading partner. In many ways, it is obvious what Australia’s allies and partners need to do to help it in the face of Chinese economic statecraft, which now threatens to put Australian imports worth $20 billion in jeopardy: try and absorb as much of the blow can they can. As analyst Euan Graham put it in a tweet today, albeit referring to the incoming Biden administration in the United States, “Statement of support for Australia from team Biden would be helpful. Focus on allied solidarity against economic warfare, with a view to what you will do in office, not Zhao’s tweet (target, not the chaff).”
The same goes for India. After all, theoretically, India does presents itself as an attractive market for Australia and a key ally in trade diversification. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. Both countries have failed to conclude a free trade agreement first mooted almost a decade ago, in 2011. India’s refusal to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement – something in which Australia, along with Japan, had invested considerably – along with India’s latent protectionist instincts, means there is very little New Delhi would be able to do for Canberra in meeting its challenges.
As the year comes to an end with the hope that 2021 will see the pandemic slowly receding into the background, the task ahead of both capitals is as clear as it is difficult: do more together to help each other out.